Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).
Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.
The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.
White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.
That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.
A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.